How to Build Your Food Forest
Are you ready to turn your yard into a garden? Or how about that empty lot in your neighborhood? Or the lawn at your school, church or public park?
The following is a guide on how to build up a food forest, starting from a bare patch of land such as a yard or empty lot.
Along with this guide, we have provided a few helpful resources.
First is a video I made in 2019 that shows how I turned a yard in Orlando into an abundant garden. With an investment of around $500, in less than a year, I was producing over $500 worth of food each month!
Note that part 6 of the video covering how to plant after laying the cardboard and mulch does not go into much depth about how to plant. Our guide, How to Plant the Food Forest Starter Bundle, covers these details, which includes this video:
We have also built a food forest from scratch in collaboration with The Deuces Food Forest in St. Pete, Florida. These two videos show the establishment of a food forest starting with a lawn on an empty lot:
These videos are all worth watching to prepare you for how to build your food forest.
Here is our step-by-step guide on how to turn your yard into a garden or build a food forest, from a blank slate.
Draw Out Your Garden Plan
Before you start planting, it is very helpful to draw out a plan. Although it is not necessary, it is really helpful in achieving the garden/food forest you desire. That being said, you don’t need to have a plan to start laying down your cardboard and mulch, as long as you know where you want to place it. So I encourage you to go ahead and get started as soon as you feel the inspiration and have the time!
Collect the cardboard and get the ball rolling on mulch drops and spreading mulch (these are covered in the steps ahead).
Here are some things to keep in mind with your garden plan:
- Locate the garden in full sun, ideally. In Florida, where the sun can be very hot, full sun can be 5-7 hours, but in most climates, full sun is 8 hours. A perfect location is a yard that is on the south side of a house. This way the garden gets full sun morning until mid-afternoon and then is blocked by the house for the late afternoon sun when it is the hottest.
- If planting large trees, plant them so that they will not block the sun from the rest of your garden. Planting large trees on the north side of the garden will accomplish this. Planting large trees on the south side will eventually shade out your whole garden. Although we talk about food forests, the reality is that very few people ever accomplish a true food forest. They tend to be abundant and diverse gardens with trees and shrubs as a part of them.
- Place your garden where you have easy access to your water supply, whether that is a hose that reaches the entire garden, drip irrigation, rainwater harvesting or any other means of watering. If it is difficult to water, it is likely that you will neglect watering. Although a key focus of food forest creation is to encourage drought tolerance and minimize watering needs, in my experience providing ample water, especially during establishment, is key to an abundant and productive garden.
- Select your plants. We’ve done this for you already with the Food Forest Starter Bundle!
- Plant spacing. Make sure to give your plants ample spacing. One of the most common mistakes people make is planting way too close together. I have done it many times. It can be hard to imagine a single Moringa seed turning into a 20-foot-tall tree or a Chaya cutting, turning into a shrub that spreads five feet wide. Follow the recommended plant spacing and draw out your garden accordingly. Plants can always be thinned and many of the plants in the Food Forest Starter Bundle are short-lived perennials. The trees are the most important to place and space accordingly as they can be around for decades.
As the plants grow and start to multiply, you will find abundance in your garden. Then you will be able to pull up plants where you planted them too close together and propagate more with the plants you pull out.
How Much Space
The amount of space for your garden will vary greatly depending on the space you have available and your desires.
We estimate that using just the plants in the Food Forest Starter Bundle you could plant an area 400 square feet to 1,500 square feet. 400 sf would cover if you wanted to grow some of every plant in the bundle; 1,500 sf would cover if you wanted to use most of the seeds and cuttings within the bundle.
An area that is 20’ long by 20’ wide would be 400’ sf, for example. An area that is 50’ long by 30’ wide would be 1,500 sf. Take out a tape measure and measure your space. Compare that to this 400-1,500 sf range to get an idea of how much of your space you can plant out with this bundle.
For reference, the Deuces Food Forest is 770 sf and we planted 84 plants.
My recommendation is to start on the smaller side and continue to expand. One of the most common issues I see for new gardeners is becoming overwhelmed by taking on more than they have the time or mental capacity for. I recommend being realistic with yourself as to what you can manage and enlarge the space each year. Again, all of these plants can be propagated by either seed or cutting, which means you have the materials to expand your garden year after year.
If you’ve already laid down cardboard and mulch while you are still planning your garden and have your cuttings and seeds growing in pots, then work is being done for you in the process! The cardboard and mulch are breaking down and turning into soil. They are absorbing and holding onto water. They are creating an environment for fungi to grow. They are creating habitats for creatures that are beneficial to the garden. Even without planting a single plant, you are building up your garden. So again, that is why I recommend laying your cardboard and mulch as soon as you feel the inspiration to turn your yard into a garden.
How to get cardboard
Cardboard is a waste product that you can get for free. My most productive method is to visit the recycling dumpsters at places that deal with a lot of boxes. Grocery stores are widely spread and deal with a lot of boxes. Just reach into their recycling dumpster and grab what you need. To save time, select the largest boxes. Appliance stores can be a good choice for this. The boxes for refrigerators, washers, etc. save a lot of time when laying the cardboard. Liquor store recycling dumpsters are also a great source for collecting a lot of cardboard in short order.
You’ll want to remove the tape and the staples from the boxes, so finding sources that have the least tape and staples can save you a lot of time.
To minimize chemicals in your garden, I recommend brown cardboard and avoiding all laminated and colored cardboard.
Other means of getting boxes: collect them from your neighbors’ recycling bins on your morning walks, ask your friends and family to save their boxes for you, check out local recycling facilities that are accessible, and save your own boxes.
Note, if you are very short on time, it is not necessary to remove the tape and staples from the cardboard. It just means that you’ll have plastic in your garden. The staples will break down over the years.
How much cardboard you’ll need
It is ample to lay just one layer of cardboard down over the entire space. If you have a very alive and lush lawn, then two layers could be beneficial.
Laying the cardboard and why cardboard
The primary purpose of the cardboard is to kill the grass and other plants that you want to remove to make way for the plants you are introducing. If you have a very sandy yard with very little growing, then cardboard is not needed as much. Also, if you are doing a foot-deep layer of mulch, then cardboard is needed less. However, I still recommend the cardboard, as it creates a barrier that the grass cannot get through, unlike mulch which plants can push through. The cardboard will break down in a matter of months, which time varies depending on moisture present.
When laying cardboard, I recommend overlapping by a foot on every side. This creates a barrier so that the grass can’t come up in between the boxes.
One of the most expensive parts of starting a garden can be the materials to build raised beds or purchasing containers. This method of turning a yard into a garden with the free resource of mulch can cut that expense out completely. It is one of the most economical means to grow a lot of food and break free from the grocery store. In Florida, wooden raised beds break down with the heat and moisture, so the expense can be ongoing. Whereas mulch is designed to be broken down, nourishing the soil, with more added each year. It is a waste product from the industry that trims and cuts down trees. They get paid to do this labor and the trees and materials they are left with are a waste product for them and often a burden. Often they are dumped in the landfill. By using this mulch, you are keeping this byproduct out of the landfill and sequestering carbon right in your own yard.
These companies often chip the trees and branches right on the spot to make them easier to transport and to fit more into their trucks. So they are making the exact material that you need, often right in your neighborhood.
When you see them in your area, you can always stop and ask if they would be happy to dump it in your yard. A tip of $20-$40 can help to form a relationship and give you priority over others that may be looking for mulch, too.
Getchipdrop.com is an excellent site where you can sign up to have the chips dropped. If you are struggling to get a drop after sign-up, I suggest adding a tip. It may result in your getting a delivery sooner.
The key is to have the mulch dropped as close to where you need it as possible. Best case scenario, you have laid the cardboard down and can have them drop it right on top of the cardboard. This can save you many hours of work as you can simply spread the pile out from there, rather than having to go long distances with wheelbarrows. This kind of efficiency is key to turning a yard into a garden on a limited time budget.
Some cities have mulch yards where you can pick up your mulch if you have a truck or can rent a truck or trailer. Some landscaping companies and nurseries provide mulch in bulk. For very small quantities you can buy it in bags, but this is highly ineffective and wasteful of resources. The time and money you spend on gas doing one pickup truck at a time is probably not worth it if you are needing larger quantities. The large mulch drops are really the most labor and resource effectual, unless you need a smaller quantity.
How much mulch?
There is a simple formula for calculating how much mulch you need. The length of the space x the width of the space x the depth of the mulch gives you the cubic feet of mulch that you’ll need. You then convert that to cubic yards.
For example, a 20’ x 30’ space with 1′ of mulch is 600 sf of mulch.
Convert to cubic yards.
Formula to calculate cubic yards: length x width x depth x .037 = Cubic yards
In a garden, I had 6.5 rows that were 50′ long, 1.5′ wide and 9″ deep
To calculate the mushroom compost needed for one of my rows would be 50′ x 1.5′ x .75′ x .037 = 2.1 cubic yards.
I have 6.5 rows, so that would mean this garden (which is a very large garden) took 13.5 cubic yards of mushroom compost.
I used about the same amount of mulch, maybe 20 yards of mulch.
A pickup truck is 1-2 cubic yards.
A mulch drop is generally around 15 yards and can be as little as 8 if it is a smaller truck or a half load.
So if you just need 4 cubic yards, then doing small pickup truck runs to a city mulch site could be practical. But if you need 30 cubic yards, then the mulch drops are going to be the way to go. You can have more delivered as needed and save it for later, or share it with others who are turning their yards into gardens. As the mulch sits in a pile, it will break down into rich organic matter for the garden.
Remember to keep all of the organic matter that your garden produces on-site. Use it as mulch and let it all break down to turn into soil.
Soil and Compost
Using the mulch method, it is possible to build your food forest without bringing in any soil or compost. The ingredient you’ll need more of is time. The mulch breaks down and builds up the soil over time. You can also start building compost through your kitchen scraps and yard plant material.
My recommendation is to bring in soil and compost right at the start to get your garden off to a quicker start. Soil and compost is one of the most expensive parts of starting the garden, but it can pay for itself quite quickly with the food it produces.
Many of the plants we’ve provided in the Food Forest Starter Bundle have very minimal nutritional needs, so if you are looking to start your garden with the least soil and fertility, you have the right plants. These plants also build up soil and nutrients, so the plants again are doing much of the work for you.
If you are doing a full size front yard and you are planting just the Food Forest Starter Bundle using our recommended method, my general recommendation would be to get about 2 cubic yards of soil or compost. This is based on pickup trucks being 1-2 cubic yards.
Where to get soil
With so much of Florida being primarily sand, it can be quite difficult to get high quality soil or compost. To get soil in bulk, check in with the nurseries and landscape supply companies in your area. Simply go to an online search, maps or yellow pages and type in “Nurseries” or “Landscape supply”. Many cities also have compost available, so check in with the city. If you are buying in smaller quantities, you can buy it in bags from nurseries or hardware stores. See my Florida guide for some resources.
Create your own compost
I encourage creating your own compost. If you don’t have this already, it’s going to take a few months before you have this available though. To really kick start your compost pile, you can dumpster dive at grocery stores for the produce they throw away, start a Community Compost Program and ask your neighbors and friends to save all their food scraps for you (just give them five-gallon buckets to fill up). For your carbon source, pick up the bags of leaves that people rake up and put to the curb (this can be an excellent source of mulch as well).
Generally, most of the soil you buy at the landscape supply companies or nurseries are low in nutrients. I would always assume it is devoid of nutrients no matter what they say. Build up the soil with worm castings, rabbit poop, goat poop, sea grass, compost tea, worm tea, fish emulsion and other natural products that you can make at home or source locally. Again, most of these plants in the Food Forest Starter Bundle need a lot less nutrients than annual veggies, but most benefit from fertility to get their head start and produce more abundantly.
As you’ll see in the How to Plant the Food Forest Starter Bundle guide and video, we generally recommend just adding the soil, compost and nutrients to where you plant each plant. This allows you to use much less of these more expensive resources and to let the rest of the garden build up soil over time.
For some plants, I do like to do mounds of soil, which are very much like rows that you would see on a farm. I do this for sweet potatoes. I mound up about 9” of soil, with a minimum of 6”, instead of digging holes in the ground. The mounds are surrounded by mulch, reducing watering needs and protecting the soil. This is my preferred method for getting highly productive, dense areas of sweet potato. This is a method for doing rows of annuals.
After laying the mulch and the cardboard, the next step is to plant. This is covered in the How to Plant the Food Forest Starter Bundle guide and video.
We have covered the plants in depth in the rest of our guides, so I will not cover that more here except for this small reminder that the plants we have provided in the Food Forest Starter Bundle:
- have the fewest pests
- need the least water and fertility
- need the least maintenance and least time to manage
- have substantial yields of food
It is important to have a gauge of how much water you’ll need.
See the Food Forest Maintenance Guide here to get an idea of how much water you’ll need.
My preferred method of watering is rainwater. I have often used 55 gallon drums, but the most effective method I have found is the 275 gallon IBC totes. I set them up on cinder blocks, which allows me to put a five-gallon bucket underneath the spigot and also creates water pressure if running a hose.
Many people will cover the totes or paint them black to prevent light from coming in to prevent algae growth. However, if you are using the water for your garden, that’s not needed. The algae will actually feed your garden.
See my setup in Orlando in this video:
Drip irrigation can be very time effective and water efficient. There is an initial investment, but it can pay for itself in time. A great benefit of drip irrigation is that it buys the freedom of being able to go away without needing to coordinate your garden being watered by others. The greatest downside is that there is plastic and electronics involved.
Watering with a hose can be very effective and is one of the most accessible means for most people. Although I will always prefer rainwater, well water or natural bodies of water to city water (with chlorine, fluoride and other chemicals), I will always use city water if that’s what I have available.
The key tools to have are pitchforks (five prongs) wheelbarrows, shovels, hand pruners, larger pruners, metal garden rakes and a machete.
For garden building volunteer days, I recommend a minimum of:
- 2-4 pitchforks (five prongs)
- 2 wheelbarrows
- 2 shovels
- 2 metal garden rakes
The most ideal tool for shoveling mulch into wheelbarrows is a five-pronged pitchfork, not the seven or nine-pronged forks, and not shovels. This can save an incredible amount of time.
I have found that I can fill a wheelbarrow in just 15 seconds using a simple method. I lay the wheelbarrow down on its side, at about a 45 degree angle or higher up against the mulch pile and then I just fork the mulch down into the wheelbarrow, hardly having to cover any distance or do any lifting. This allows for moving a mulch pile with incredible efficiency. Moving mulch is one of the most important skills in establishing a food forest. If you have multiple people, generally the most effective means is to have some people stay at the pile with the pitchforks and some people dumping the wheelbarrows and coming right back to the pile with the empty wheelbarrow for it to be quickly filled up and returned to be dumped. You also have more people where it is being dumped to spread it, or you take time occasionally to spread the loads that have been dumped. Skip the gym and do mulch exercise instead!
If you have money and are short on time for labor or physical ability, I recommend hiring people to spread the mulch for you.
Volunteer days can be incredibly productive, while providing a learning and community building opportunity for those who volunteer. Bring together the community and provide a connective and expansive opportunity for them in the garden!
Based on my years of experience with turning front yards into gardens, here are some startup cost estimates for turning a yard into a garden. This is just the materials and does not include the tools you may need to purchase. If you are working on a budget, then borrowing tools or finding them secondhand will help you accommodate your budget.
- $400 without rain totes
- $600 with rain totes
- $1,000 if you want to pay for some basic labor help and have some comfort and ease
Here is a breakdown of this:
- $110 for the Food Forest Starter Bundle
- $40-$80 for mulch drop tip (~15 cubic yards of soil)
- $150 for 2 cubic yards of soil
- $40 for potting soil
- $20 for pots/trays
- $40 for gas
- $200 for 2 rain totes
- Gutters to direct rainwater
See the Food Forest Maintenance Guide here.
I recommend you be in the garden daily at first. Eventually you’ll be able to go away for weeks or even months with no maintenance, but to start daily or every other day is key. To stay on top of your garden and prevent being overwhelmed, I recommend:
- Weeding daily and as needed. Don’t let the weeds get reestablished.
- Insect control daily and as needed.
- Watering daily and as needed.
- Pruning daily and as needed.
- Harvesting daily and as needed.
One of the most important factors in establishing your garden is time, especially with perennial plants.
Our goal is to provide the general spacing recommendations between plants. We have not done this yet and will add this here if and when it is complete. We recommend following other websites that share this basic information. We recommend Josh Jamison’s resources including the blog, video and product listings.
There is a lot more that we’d like to share, but we are elated to provide this knowledge and these resources for you. With all of the videos and guides we have written, we feel confident that you can create a successful food forest garden to help you break free from the grocery store. Our Guide to Gardening in Florida is an excellent resource to get you plugged into your community!
This is our recommended method of working with the Food Forest Starter Bundle. There are other methods that others would recommend in the Florida region. None are necessarily right or wrong, they just represent different preferences and strategies. We have laid out this simple method to be of service in helping you to establish your food forest garden. We have tried to keep our recommendations to the basics, to not overwhelm you with too much information, but enough information to ensure the highest likelihood of success.
We also want to say that we will make mistakes in our teaching. We are not experts. This guide was written by me, Robin Greenfield. My team and I have grown a lot of food and have had a lot of success. I did grow and forage 100% of my food for a whole year after all! But, I have made plenty of mistakes and am sure that I have shared some information imperfectly. However, I am confident that if you follow this guide exactly, you are setting yourself up for a high level of success. If some things fail because we steer you slightly wrong, that’s okay. We’re working with the abundance mindset and that includes some plants that don’t make it!